Hello everyone, and Happy New Year! It’s me again, everybody’s favorite author/dentist/grammar nazi, Dr. Katharine Pope. Today’s post isn’t on grammar, though. It’s on a subject very near and dear to all of us: how to be a better writer.
Granted, I know I am not exactly the authority on this topic. I am not published traditionally or independently (yet). However, I am a voracious reader, which in turn helps me to push myself to be a better writer. That being said, let’s get started on my list. There’s bound to be something in here for all of us.
1) Read. Read, Read, READ. This is so important that it made the top of my list. Why, you might ask? Well, I have a few theories, but the most important one is this: As authors, we tend to read what we like to write (and vice versa). So how does one know what one wants to write? Or how? Only by reading, then writing, can an author really find his or her own voice.
This rule is so important to me. To share my story, I learned in 2004 that I adored the prose that belonged to Jacqueline Carey in her “Kushiel’s Legacy” series. Her writing in those six books is a combination of vivid imagery, fantasy, action, humor, and a little bit of smut. I was instantly hooked – not just on the story, but on her storytelling. I found that, once I’d read her books, I wanted to be an author of that caliber. I was inspired. And, as an author, you should find someone whose writing inspires you.
2) Expand your vocabulary. There are a million words that get far too much play. For example, “said.” (More on that in a moment.) A bunch of adverbs, like “slowly” or “softly.” Common nouns. Common names. Common locations. ENOUGH WITH THE COMMON ALREADY! There is so much out there, so many words that haven’t been tapped into yet. Use them.
I’m not saying that authors should use words or phrases that they don’t know the meaning of, or that they don’t feel comfortable using, or worse, to make themselves look smarter/more educated or to put other authors/readers down. That’s not the case at all. Let’s face it, authors and readers are already more intelligent and complex than the average person. So let’s not do them an injustice; let’s give them what they deserve.
3) STOP USING THE WORD “SAID”!!! Yet another one of my pet peeves (and if you’ve read my last blog post for Mertz, you know I have a few of them). There have to be a gazillion verbs to use in place of the word “said.” Like yelled. Screeched. Shouted. Spoke. Responded. Conferred. Agreed. Retorted. Rebutted. Teased. Scoffed. Seethed. Joked. Cried out. Hissed. Breathed. Laughed. Griped. Bemoaned. Wailed. Sputtered. Raged. Roared. Whispered. Snapped. Spat out. Drawled. Threatened. Replied. Confirmed. The list goes on and on and on, but you get the idea. Be creative. Be imaginative. Show your readers who you are as an author and how honed your skills are. Believe me, they’ll know, and will respect you more for it in the long run (the short run, too).
The verb “to say” is grossly, GROSSLY overused in literature. It’s bad enough on its own, but when it is suddenly coupled with an adverb (i.e., Said softly, said loudly, said angrily, said slowly), it becomes almost cliché. That point brings us to…
4) Use adverbs with care. Consult a dictionary, AND a thesaurus. I don’t care what you have to do, do NOT resort to something like said softly. I believe the word whispered works even better in its place.
Adverbs are not a problem in and of themselves. Sometimes they’re absolutely necessary, and that’s good. I feel as though anything to make the story more descriptive is usually (but not always) better. However, it’s when they’re used for the wrong reasons (i.e., lazy author; trying to fatten up a word count) that things turn awful. I cringe when I read adverbs used as a crutch, and I’m willing to bet that I’m not the only one.
5) Don’t repeat the same word more than once or twice in a paragraph or in a clip of short sentences. I read this piece of advice once in a (now-defunct) blog post, and it’s important enough to bear repeating. Paragraphs flow better when important words are spotlighted only one time. Take the following excerpt from my previous work, “The Maneater in the Suburbs.” (Yes, I am tough enough to take on the criticism.)
I notice his body first. He definitely has presence, that’s for sure. His chiseled, sculpted body puts Michael’s to shame a million times over. Everything on his body is in perfect proportion. Every muscle is carefully outlined in his blue jeans, white button-down shirt and white T-shirt. He’s toned, tanned, and has not one ounce of body fat on his frame. His body is spectacular, and he’s a sharp, classy dresser, too. I just need a paper bag to throw over his head.
See what I mean? Being a better writer now than I obviously was when I wrote this piece back in 2008(!), I can tell you that I CRINGE whenever I read this paragraph. What was I thinking, repeating the word “body” so many times in such a short span? Not only is it redundant, but it reads awkwardly, like I’m having a Rain Man moment. I should have deleted some “body”s and replaced others with words like “frame” or “form.” As a side note, I should have entirely gotten rid of the “shirt” after “button-down.” And I should have disposed of a “white.”
Here’s how the corrected paragraph should read:
I notice his body first. He definitely has presence, that’s for sure. His chiseled, sculpted form puts Michael’s to shame a million times over. Everything is in perfect proportion; every muscle is carefully outlined in his blue jeans, white button-down and matching T-shirt. He’s toned, tanned, and has not one ounce of excess fat on his frame. His body is spectacular, and he’s a sharp, classy dresser, too. I just need a paper bag to throw over his head.
YEAH. That makes me feel much better.
See the difference? Not only does the corrected paragraph read better and flow more smoothly, but it is devoid of the extraneous adornments and gets down to business. Its polish denotes the years of experience I’ve gained in fewer words. Now THAT’S exciting.
6) Learn how to properly proofread. Or, better, find someone else to do it for you. Yet another point that is SO important, because it saves us all a world of hurt in the aftermath.
Believe me, I know how hard it is to proofread. I myself have been responsible for a whole mess of blunders, each of which makes me want to stick my foot in my mouth. It’s so hard to proofread one’s own writing because it’s, well, one’s own baby – known so well and loved so much, it’s easy to miss what’s wrong.
If you’re not going to hire a professional editor (which, given the cost, time, and effort, is something which I’m sure many of us aspire to, but is simply out of our reach), then you need to follow Hemingway’s rule: You MUST edit sober. Seriously. You can be as inebriated as you want while you’re writing, but you cannot make any corrections until all of the alcohol is out of your system. At that point, you need to find what works for you. It might sound silly, but for me, the best way to proofread is to read everything I’ve written out loud. I’ve caught more typos, misspellings, and awkward sentence structures that way than any other.
Please, try your own ways for proofreading, too. What works for me might not work for you, and vice versa. But that’s not what’s important. What IS important is that you sit down and seriously proofread your works (more than once, by the way) before you hit SUMBIT.
7) Avoid the use of clichés as much as possible. An article for Glimmer Train Magazine’s online component (http://glimmertrain.stores.yahoo.net/litfiction.html) delves a bit into the use of clichés. To sum it up: it’s bad, and not only does one need to avoid it in every case possible, but one only recognizes it if one reads regularly…which goes back to my first point!
Yes, I’ve used clichés in the past, and I still use them now. Seriously. Only now, when I know I’m using a cliché, I like to use the word proverbial with it. As in, “It was so quiet, one could hear the proverbial pin drop.” Or “He was so delicious but so bad for me, like the proverbial forbidden fruit I shouldn’t eat.” I own up to the fact that I’m using a cliché, which somehow makes it more acceptable. Don’t ask me why or how. It just does.
8) Take constructive criticism seriously. Having been on the receiving end of blatant criticism, which is much different, I know that constructive criticism is a true gift. In constructive criticism, the reader/reviewer believes in your writing, your story, and/or your characters, but perhaps is not quite satisfied. This type of person only wants you to polish your work so that it sparkles better than a diamond in a Tiffany & Co. display. (See? An uncommon cliché, thank you.) PAY ATTENTION. A reader/editor who cares enough to give you constructive criticism and possibly advice is someone who has spent a significant amount of time reading your work.
I recently received an early Christmas present: an anonymous feedbacker left me a long review for my short story “Baby Dance” (https://www.fictionpress.com/s/3220679/1/Baby-Dance). She (I believe this reader was a female) made it a point to repeat that the story was well-written, but that she did not like the characters, finding them to be “unsympathetic” and in an “unhealthy relationship.” This was actually the theme of the story, one which I didn’t come right out and divulge. Show, rather than tell, I suppose is how the rule goes. But in any case, I was very pleased that this reader felt strongly enough to leave a comment. MY work left an impression on someone. There is no better gift or more glorious feeling than that.
9) Work out the basics: who vs. that, which vs. that, both…and, either…or, neither…nor, and all of their friends. Well, hard as I tried, I couldn’t stay away from minor grammar. (Grammar nazi. Sue me.)
Other than the repeat of key words multiple times in a paragraph (see #5), nothing jars me more than reading a sentence like this: “He’s the type of person that leaves the toilet seat up.” NO! No no NO!!! A person is a who, not a that. “He’s the type of person who leaves the toilet seat up.”
An animal is a that (but could also be a who, depending on who you talk to). An inanimate object is a that. A person is a who. Get it straight.
10) Surround yourself with the proper accoutrements. This is my favorite tip of all! Now, I’m not condoning alcoholism or drunk driving, but I have always found that a glass (or two) of red wine or a shot (or two) of Cîroc vodka helps the words flow.
Let’s face it, we all have a place (or several) where we get stuck. Perhaps it’s writers block. But more often than not, it’s boredom. It’s “I have to insert this paragraph/chapter to make the story flow better/give some background info/etc., but it’s not something I want to write.” This happens to me fairly often. I’ve found that this is where the alcohol comes in handy…and once it’s down my throat, words start pouring out!
Of course, one’s favorite alcoholic beverage is not the only accoutrement one needs for a successful writing session. Do you prefer to type on your computer/laptop/iPad/cell phone, or jot notes down onto paper with your favorite pen? Do you need complete and utter silence, or some music playing in the background? (Or are you like my mom, who prefers the subliminal messages from QVC to keep her company?) Can you take breaks, or do you need to be focused for hours at a time to get anything done? These are also points to consider.
Whatever it is one needs to get down to business is considered the proper accompaniment to writing. End of story.
Well, that’s it for my writing tips. I have more, to be sure, but these are the most important. Take whatever you have learned from them and RUN! Make 2015 your best writing year yet. Remember, I’m hoping for the best for all of us. And if you’re looking for more tips or a place to vent, please check out my all-new “Words and Teeth” website.